Coming off of a big win against Washington, Philadelphia (4-5) gets set to host the winless Miami Dolphins (0-9) on Sunday with a chance to gain ground in the tough NFC east with a win. Here’s a look at five matchups that could be critical to Sunday's game:
Donovan McNabb vs. Miami's Secondary
The Eagle's quarterback had a stellar game against Washington last week and showed his critic’s how potent Philadelphia's passing attack can be. Against the Redskins, McNabb threw for 251 yards and completed 71.4% of his passes while moving past Ron Jaworski as the Eagles franchise leader in career completions. The record was broken on a 45-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Brown late in the game. Last Sunday marked the second time this season that McNabb has thrown four touchdowns in a game, and he now has 13 passing touchdowns on the season. McNabb also had a season-high seven rushing attempts for 37 yards, showing that he is gaining more confidence in his rehabilitated knee as each week passes.
The Dolphins defense has allowed a respectable 184.6 yards per game through the air this season, but the secondary has still had trouble-keeping opponents out of the end zone. Miami has allowed 15 passing touchdowns this season, which makes them tied with Denver for the sixth-most in the league. Opposing quarterbacks have often had success against the Dolphins and have a combined quarterback rating of 97.6. The secondary is led by cornerback and former New York Giant Will Allen, who has 33 tackles, one forced fumble, one interception and nine pass deflections so far on the year. In the nine games he has played against Philadelphia in his career, Allen has picked off two passes and forced a fumble.
Philadelphia's pass rush vs. John Beck
The pressure put on opposing quarterbacks by Philadelphia's defense has been strong all season and the Eagles 25 sacks have them tied with New England and Pittsburgh for the fourth-most in the league. The leader of the group, Trent Cole, is tied for the NFC lead in sacks with nine and might be on his way to his first pro bowl. Juqua Thomas has also been effective coming off the edge, recording four sacks even though he only sees limited action as a sub on the defensive line. Although Jim Johnson's unit only managed to take down Washington quarterback Jason Campbell once last week, it came at a time when it mattered most. Mike Patterson forced a fumble late in the fourth quarter that Broderick Bunkley recovered, and the Eagles got possession at the Washington ten-yard line and scored on one play.
Without much to lose, the Dolphins decided to pull starter Cleo Lemon this week in favor of their second round draft choice, John Beck. Lemon had started the last five games for Miami in place of the injured Trent Green but failed to get a win, so the coaching staff will play the rookie Beck to evaluate his performance and try to spark the team's offense. A three-year starter in college, Beck finished his career at BYU ranked second in school history in completions, attempts, and yards, behind only Ty Detmer. In his senior year, he threw for 3,885 yards and 32 touchdowns. As a professional, Beck showed promise in the preseason, leading Miami to two fourth-quarter comeback wins in his first two games. He will have to adjust to playing against NFL starters quickly without a star receiver and behind an offensive line that has allowed 17 sacks.
As McNabb continues to regain his mobility and improve on getting the ball out quickly the way he did against Washington, it will get easier for Philadelphia's offensive line to do their job and keep the quarterback upright. This will be especially true for the 6-foot-7, 335 pound Thomas, who is responsible for protecting McNabb's blind side. Although McNabb has been sacked 30 times this season, it has often been because he is standing in the pocket too long or not getting rid of the football. A ten-year veteran and three-time pro bowler, Thomas continues to be an integral part of the Eagle's offense. In the game against the Giants in week 3, Thomas did not play because of an injury and New York got 12 sacks in the game.
Taylor is coming off a season where he was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, and he has continued to play like an all-pro even though his team is struggling. A five-time pro bowler, Taylor uses his speed and length to get around bigger defenders and wreak havoc in the backfield. On the year, he has 29 tackles, five sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
Brian Westbrook vs. Miami's linebackers
With his performance against the Redskins, Westbrook proved again last week that he is one of the most versatile offensive weapons in the NFL. Last week, Westbrook had 100 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, while also catching five passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns. He now has nine total touchdowns on the year and has 1,219 total yards from scrimmage, second most in the NFL. Westbrook will have a chance to take advantage of a Dolphin's defense that is ranked 30th in the league against the run, allowing 149.7 yards per game, and 31st in scoring defense, allowing 28.6 points per game.
Although they have not showed it statistically, Miami boasts a strong group of linebackers who can cover and pass. The leader of the group, Zach Thomas, is out with an injury and his presence will be missed. Thomas leads the team in tackles with 52, even though he has missed four games this season. Channing Crowder is second on the team with 47 tackles, and the former Florida Gator has shown improvement in his third year in the league. Joey Porter was Miami's big free agent acquisition in the offseason and, although he has not produced the way he did under Bill Cowher, he is still an intimidating force. On the season, the three-time pro bowler Porter has 33 tackles and two sacks
Philadelphia's special teams vs. Ted Ginn Jr.
While Philadelphia's kickoff and punt coverage teams had issues early in the year, they have been consistent the last few games. The Eagles allow 23.1 yards per kickoff return and 7.4 yards per punt return, which is the sixth-fewest in the NFC in both categories. The longest kick return of the year was a 51-yard return by the Jets Leon Washington.
As the ninth-overall pick in the 2007 draft, Ginn came into the league with high expectations. In college, Ginn was a three-year starter at Ohio State and developed a reputation as a playmaker, tying an NCAA record for return touchdowns with eight. He has yet to have as much an impact as a professional yet, but the rookie has returned 12 punts for 89 yards and 34 kickoffs for 807 yards.
Andrew Pluta can be reached at email@example.com.